Maria Clara Rodriguez, Kristi House’s Program Director of Project GOLD, was one of seven Floridians awarded Attorney General Pam Bondi’s 2015 Distinguished Victim Services Award at the Capitol in Tallahassee on April 22, 2015 for her fundamental and monumental role in combating the issue of child sex trafficking. Heading up Kristi House’s Project GOLD Drop In Center, she is leading the development of a community-based approach to the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) that holds the promise of healing and restoring exploited girls’ lives.
“In Miami-Dade, and indeed our State, we have seen a sea change in understanding and awareness of the issue of child sex trafficking since Kristi House began its program in 2007, when few recognized this population were victims and not criminals,” Kristi House Board President Juan Trescastro said. “Maria Clara has been a large part of that transformation.”
The Project GOLD Drop In Center is a one-of-a-kind program in Miami for underage girls who have been trafficked for sex. Since opening in January 2014 at its neighborhood location, the Drop In Center has been successful in engaging girls in regular, ongoing programming. The Center is serving the need for daytime respite and programs, regardless of girls’ residential placements, in a community where the incidence of child sex trafficking is among the highest in the country.
The team of advocates provide support, mental health and enrichment services to CSEC girls at the Center, and work to convince them to leave the streets and restart their education, helping them to see another way of life.
“Maria Clara has been in the trenches, on the streets, on the airwaves and on the road for child sexual abuse and exploitation victims for 13 years,” Mr. Trescastro said. “Her victim advocacy work spans the spectrum of ways to help victims, from the macro to the individual. She is very deserving of this award and we are so proud.”
For the last 13 years, Maria Clara Rodriguez has been tirelessly working to alleviate and eradicate the issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation. She began as a case coordinator with Kristi House, then expanded her reach as an educator and trainer who influenced thousands across Florida and exponentially nationwide through media stories. She educated about CSEC beginning seven years ago, before most recognized this was a serious issue among domestic children. Then Maria Clara took to the streets as Kristi House’s CSEC Street Outreach Coordinator where she lead groups of volunteers in identifying CSEC missing children in the early hours of the morning. She also directed a 16-week prevention and empowerment program for girls at at-risk schools.
For Maria Clara, her work is not just a job, but a devotion. She staffs the program’s hotline number 24/7, answering calls at any hour when a girl has been found that needs help. When the police find an exploited girl who needs a safe place to stay, she has been there on many occasions, even in the middle of the night, to meet the victim and open the Drop In Center.
In the powerful CSEC training she regularly delivers, Maria Clara has mentioned and proven that the Project GOLD girls are truly her family. She has a gift for conveying the suffering children endure at the hands of perpetrators and traffickers, but still inspiring confidence that there is hope for them with a little help from those who can. Maria Clara’s breadth of experience and willingness to always give extra makes her especially well-suited for her role, and notably deserving of this Outstanding Victim Advocate award bestowed during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
Photo caption: Kristi House Board Member Loretta Nido, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Maria Clara Rodriguez and Kristi House Executive Director Claudia Kitchens.